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Anim Cogn. 2014 Nov;17(6):1365-74. doi: 10.1007/s10071-014-0772-x. Epub 2014 Jun 19.

Interpretation of human pointing by African elephants: generalisation and rationality.

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  • 1Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, Fife, KY16 9JP, Scotland, UK.


Factors influencing the abilities of different animals to use cooperative social cues from humans are still unclear, in spite of long-standing interest in the topic. One of the few species that have been found successful at using human pointing is the African elephant (Loxodonta africana); despite few opportunities for learning about pointing, elephants follow a pointing gesture in an object-choice task, even when the pointing signal and experimenter's body position are in conflict, and when the gesture itself is visually subtle. Here, we show that the success of captive African elephants at using human pointing is not restricted to situations where the pointing signal is sustained until the time of choice: elephants followed human pointing even when the pointing gesture was withdrawn before they had responded to it. Furthermore, elephants rapidly generalised their response to a type of social cue they were unlikely to have seen before: pointing with the foot. However, unlike young children, they showed no sign of evaluating the 'rationality' of this novel pointing gesture according to its visual context: that is, whether the experimenter's hands were occupied or not.

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